Houston Jewish community grieves over shuttle, Israeli

HOUSTON — Rabbi David Rosen had encouraged his congregants to attend a welcome-home ceremony, scheduled for Sunday, for the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Instead, he helped organize last-minute memorials for the community.

"We grieve for the six U.S. astronauts and their families, for the loss of life and for the dreams in what should have been a celebration," Rosen said. "And we grieve as well for Israel and the loss of Col. Ramon, in whom Israelis have placed so much hope."

For Houston-area Jews, the stunning tragedy of the Columbia breakup felt personal: The six NASA astronauts lived in Houston, and Ramon had made his home here for the past four years.

At Conservative Congregation Shaar Hashalom — which Ramon, his wife, Rona, and his four children attended — members got the news immediately before services Saturday morning.

Many of the congregants are scientists and engineers who worked at NASA.

Ramon "was a very elegant man. He never sought the limelight," said Marty Gordon, president of Shaar Hashalom.

Considering the close personal connection, it's not surprising that the community spent time this week holding public gatherings and services to commemorate and mourn.

The largest of the ceremonies took place Monday at Houston's Beth Yeshurun, where nearly 2,000 people attended a memorial service for the Columbia crew.

Among them were Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, and Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

Wolferman said he is grateful to the American people, Israel and NASA for their support.

"They really are doing their best," he said at the service. Ayalon called Ramon "a national hero," adding that the astronaut "had a very strong identity as a Jew, as an Israeli. I think his personal story embodies the true triumph of the Jewish people."

The Beth Yeshurun service was one of many held in the Houston area this week.

On Saturday night, Shaar Hashalom held a joint memorial service with Clear Lake Reform Temple Beth Tikvah.

Israeli American Eli Dwek, an astrophysicist at the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, said he had met many current and former astronauts.

They tend to be humble people, often with self-deprecating humor, Dwek said. And they're aware that they serve as role models, especially for young people.

But Ramon was something more, Dwek added. He was a role model for an entire nation. And just as Israel prepared to celebrate Ramon's return to Earth, it all went wrong.

"For the first few hours I was numb," Dwek said. "And then, slowly, it started seeping in. He has four kids, and these kids have to go back to their school.

"I went to pick up my daughter from synagogue. She is 12," he continued. "We talked. I explained to her what the tragedy meant. We were numb with hurt."

Not all of the Houston ceremonies were so organized.

Avi Alon had prepared several banners to take to the astronauts' homecoming reception. When he heard the news Saturday morning, he cried, and that afternoon, when he saw the banners, he cried again.

Alon talked to his wife about the pain he was feeling and stayed connected by phone all day with Israeli friends in Houston.

Alon told his friends to gather at the Jewish Community Center parking lot on Sunday afternoon — not for a memorial service, not for an organized event with speeches and song, but simply to share their grief. More than 200 people showed up.

Alon chose the location because it symbolizes the physical center of the Houston Jewish community. He put together a makeshift memorial under a tree because one of the Hebrew words for tree is ilan.

Israelis in Houston have been deeply affected by the past two years of violence in Israel, according to Alon.

"You know, life in Israel is not normal," he said. "People are exploding on the streets. This has become normal. And then, in the middle of all this darkness, a ray of light goes up. This Israeli astronaut was a ray of light. He created such hope. We were lifted up together with Ramon. As high as we were, the fall was awful."

At Monday's memorial service for the Columbia crew at Beth Yeshurun, Rosen explained that Kaddish would not be recited during the service, since no formal burial had taken place. Instead, he said, the El Malei Rachamim prayer would be chanted.

Rabbi Roy Walter spoke about the items Ramon took with him on the shuttle: photographs of his family, an Israeli flag, a drawing of the Earth made at Theresienstadt by teenager Petr Ginz — who later was killed in Auschwitz — a microfiche copy of the Bible and a small Torah scroll that had survived the Holocaust.

Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador, contrasted the sense of pride and happiness at the beginning of the launch with the grief the participants shared on Monday.

"The last message that Col. Ramon sent to his wife," Ayalon said, "was that the world looks marvelous from up here, so wonderful and so fragile. All of us down there, not only in Israel, have to keep it clean and good.''